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Turning Trash Into Treasure, Explore California’s Glass Beach

Picture of Justine McGrath
Updated: 20 April 2017

If you’ve watched The Little Mermaid more times than you care to admit and frequently daydream of picking up treasures along the coast, then it’s time to visit Fort Bragg, California. (Heck, you can even sing along to “Part of Your World” once you arrive.) The small city, located in Mendocino County, is perhaps best known for its astounding Glass Beach, which has attracted visitors since the 1940s.

Located inside MacKerricher State Park, you’ll see why Glass Beach got its name as soon as you descend upon its shores. Thousands of pieces of colorful glass dot the coastline, replacing your standard California sand, creating a kaleidoscopic effect that is truly breathtaking.

While the wonders of Glass Beach are mesmerizing, the unusual oceanic feature stems from strange beginnings. Soon after the devastating San Francisco earthquake in 1906, inhabitants needed a way to clear their city of rubble that resulted from the natural disaster. Although most people would be shocked to hear of a city doing this today, at the time, they decided to dump their waste into the Pacific.

Over time, the crashing waves of the ocean broke down and polished bits of discarded rubbish and pushed it back onto the shore, creating the smooth, colorful pieces of glass now associated with the beach. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the city realized its mistake. Soon afterward, the city built a proper dump away from the ocean, but the stunning sea glass remained.

During the 1990s, local conservation groups started efforts to clean up and preserve the beach. And in 2002, the California Department of Parks and Recreation purchased Glass Beach and began its association with MacKerricher State Park.

Although the glass pebbles were once garbage, it is now illegal to remove them from the beach, as they are technically part of MacKerricher State Park. Those looking to take home a piece of Fort Bragg history should supplement their beach visit by stopping by the Sea Glass Museum—located nearby—to purchase a souvenir.

Today, visitors flock to the beach to snap pictures, dip their toes in the ocean, and marvel at the man-made mess that’s been transformed into something naturally stunning. Glass Beach is open year-round, but it is especially popular during Memorial Weekend when the Annual Fort Bragg Sea Festival occurs. Visit soon, and take note that even though environmental mistakes can turn into something beautiful, we should try to prevent them nonetheless.